The Cambrian

Cambria CSD won’t seek federal grant money to fund more firefighters

Cambria Fire Department engine.
Cambria Fire Department engine.

The Cambria Community Services District won’t continue seeking a federal grant that would pay for three firefighters for three years.

The CSD Board of Directors voted 4-0 on Monday, July 23, to stop pursuing a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant for firefighter pay that would have matched about $74,673 of local funding for two years and and $194,149 for the third year, according to a staff report for Monday’s special meeting. The board had proposed to use funds currently used to support Fiscalini Ranch Preserve for the local match money.

That averages out to about $115,000 a year, or a total of $343,495 for three years. The total federal share of the grant would be nearly $553,000.

The ranch-funding switch drew a lot of unhappy comments online over the weekend, as did staff’s suggestion that ranch maintenance costs could be backfilled by an independent parcel tax to go on a future ballot.

Board President Amanda Rice made it clear at the outset of Monday’s meeting that the ranch-funding option was not a topic for that day.

“We’re here to decide if we’re willing to commit the funds, not where the funds would come,” she said.

Eventually, the four directors unanimously opted not to pursue grant further, citing financial constraints in meeting the local-match requirement. Director Harry Farmer was absent.

However, the board left a little wiggle room if the Federal Emergency Management Agency will allow the district to modify its application by indicating that the CSD is requesting that FEMA waive the local match.

It wasn’t immediately known if FEMA would allow that, or even allow the district to withdraw its application.

The last-minute special meeting was scheduled the Friday before because the district had just been notified about the grant-process deadline from FEMA.

General Manager Jerry Gruber and Fire Chief William Hollingsworth weren’t at Monday’s meeting. Gruber was on vacation, and the fire chief was at an out-of-town class. Both commitments had been prearranged before anybody knew a special meeting would be needed.

SAFER grant vs. ballot measure

A fire-department-related benefit assessment ballot measure failed to get a two-thirds majority vote in June.

Those annual assessments would have paid to have three more firefighters on staff, giving the department the nationally recommended “two in/two out” staffing for fighting “immediately dangerous to life and health” structure and other fires. That means two firefighters could immediately go into a burning structure to search for victims while two others remained outside to start fighting the fire and act as safety monitors.

The SAFER grant application was submitted before the June election.

Fire Captain John Gibson said the new grant, as originally submitted, would have paid toward fully burdened entry-level costs for three firefighters for three years, with funding completed by the district’s local match.

Gibson said that not continuing with and supporting the SAFER-grant application could make it harder for the district to make the cut on future grants.

“FEMA typically red tags a community” that doesn’t accept a grant that’s been applied for and offered, he told the board and ratepayers in the standing-room-only audience in the Veterans Hall’s small Fireside Room. “You go on the back burner and may not be considered for future FEMA grants,” at least for a while.

The district has just completed a three-year SAFER grant cycle in which three firefighters were hired fulltime for three years. Gibson said those three are still with the department, but only on reservist status.